Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The North Star Grassman and The Ravens - Sandy Denny

The North Star Grassman and The Ravens
Sandy Denny
A&M SP 4317

My favorite Sandy Denny solo album.  If you combined the best cuts on this with the best songs on Fairport Convention's "Full House", you would have a terrific follow-up to Fairport Convention's "Liege and Lief".  If only she had stayed with the Fairports long enough to pull them out of their obsession with traditional English music, we might have been spared some of the mediocre folk-rock albums that tarnished the band's name.  But then again Richard Thompson probably would have still left and that was really the death of the band.  This album is actually closer to Fairport's "Unhalfbricking" than it is to "Liege and Lief".  There is only one traditional song (the very fine "Blackwaterside") and there is a nice Dylan cover "Down in the Flood" as well as a sexy and rockin' cover of Brenda Lee's "Let's Jump the Broomstick" - the sort of eclecticism that made the early Fairport so charming and fun.  Denny's original songs are often criticized for being too obscure and I have to admit there are plenty here that I can't figure out even when I stare at a lyric sheet although they do sound very nice.  I was shocked when I read Rob Young's  "Electric Eden" and saw his interpretation of the gloomy and doom-laden "Late November" as being a reference to the van crash that nearly destroyed Fairport Convention which she apparently foresaw in a dream.  I was equally surprised to learn from Young that "Next Time Around" was about her former boyfriend Jackson Frank and their days hanging around in Theo Johnson's folk club.  You can appreciate either song without knowing their significance to her yet I find it amazing that she fills the songs with so many telling, yet impossibly obscure and personal clues that only a close friend would ever be able to figure them out.  I love both songs but this insular quality is a little alienating to me.  I would certainly prefer a more direct connection to what she is trying to say.  The exception to this is "John the Gun" which is one of the most compelling songs she ever wrote, a beautiful synthesis of traditional folk style and a modern sensibility.  Anyway even though I don't understand some of the songs, I love Denny's voice so much I'd listen to this record even if the songs were written in Klingon.  She is supported by an excellent backing band featuring most notably Richard Thompson who plays on the entire album and helped produce it as well.  Recommended for Fairport Convention fans who rue the day Dave Swarbrick joined the band.

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